Secrets of the San Francisco Dump

San Francisco Dump building on a sunny day

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Thanks to the organizers of Compostmodern, we were able to take a tour of the San Francisco Transfer Station - the place where all the trash from the city goes to be sorted into recyclables, compostables, and junk headed for the dump. Turns out, there's a lot more to this facility than trash. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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For your reference, you are here. The transfer station is at 401 Tunnel Ave (for those of you who want to Google Earth it). Keep in mind this is the transfer station, not the landfill. The landfill is 60 miles away. But here at 401 Tunnel is where the real magic happens. Map from Google

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One of the primary focuses of the San Francisco Transfer Station is keeping things out of the landfill. The facility does a lot of work to make sure as much waste is recycled as possible. There is a goal of 75% waste diversion set for the city and surrounding towns. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The city has these recognizable bins - one for trash, one for recycling, and one for composting. One type of truck picks up trash and recycling, and another picks up the compostables. San Francisco was the first large city to go city wide in recycling, both on a commercial and residential level. They also have a special composting facility to produce certified organic compost. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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In this facility, residents and businesses can come dump individual loads of refuse. The pile is sorted through, separating out e-waste, reuseables, recyclables, compostables, and trash - all to be processed differently. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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It is really important that all the electronics and objects that contain any electronic components get separated out so that nothing toxic goes into the landfill. The city does not ship any electronics to developing countries - they're handled by trustworthy recyclers. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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E-waste isn't the only hazardous material carefully sorted by the facility. All liquids head to this shed where they're sorted. Cleaners, varnishes, oils, paints, and anything at all that's liquid comes here for proper processing. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Any paint that isn't contaminated and is in good condition gets mixed together here based on color groups. It's then put into 5-gallon buckets, and anyone can come and get a bucket or two for free. It's a great way for residents and small businesses to spiff up their places on the cheap. Here are 5 ways to help keep paint from heading to the dump in the first place. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Appliances also have to be carefully processed since they contain liquids. oils, freon, even mercury all has to be taken out before the appliances can be recycled. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The facility likes to beautify their area from what they salvage from the piles. Plastic trees line the walk way, helping to beautify the area (at least a little) while diverting junk from landfills. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Decorating the facility goes far beyond pulling plastic trees from the piles. Some pretty crazy and massive statues end up on the hillside overlooking the unloading stations. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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After everything is dumped out and briefly sorted, it comes here to another sorting facility. This bulldozer grabs big loads of trash and puts it on a conveyor belt headed up to a more detailed sorting line. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Here, each person on the line is assigned to a certain type of material. When they spot the material, they pull it from the line and toss it into a pile. Our guide notes, "If we have a market, we'll separate it. If there's no market, it doesn't make any sense to." So some recyclables, such as plastic bags, aren't separated because the facility doesn't have an end market for it. Even dumps have to watch their pennies. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Anything still on the conveyor belt at the end of the sorting line gets poured into this hole. This is where it is broken up and put into long-haul trucks destined for the landfill 60 miles away. You might notice the cardboard in the pile - that cardboard is coated in plastic and therefore isn't able to be put aside for recycling. This is a great example about how we have to design EVERYTHING for a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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While the city has a 75% waste diversion goal, you can see a massive amount of trash is still generated constantly. And you can also see the amount of plastic that heads straight for the landfill. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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This is the bulldozer that runs over the trash to break it up and push it into the long-haul truck. You might have seen the Dirty Jobs episode where Mike Rowe attempts to run one of these at this very facility. Here's a snippet from the episode. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The actual landfill is 60 miles from the sorting facility. So they use these trucks that can hold the same amount as three garbage trucks. It cuts down on the mileage, yet still an amazing 12,000 miles a day is racked up carting trash to the landfill. The dump uses a fuel mix of 20% biodiesel and 80% diesel to try and green up the fleet a little. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The birds bring a little wildlife, and wild life to the facility. They're circling the organic annex picking out some tastey rubbish to snack on before it gets chewed up and used for composting or fuel. While the gulls are happy, cutting back on food waste is really important as it leads to reducing waste in a lot of other sectors. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Now here is one of the cooler secrets of the facility. They have an artist in residence program where 6 artists a year are selected to create art 100% from the materials found at the dump. Here is their studio. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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One of the artists, Bill Basquin, is working on a series of compost bins that will educate and enlighten viewers about the composting process. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Other artists have created some great work from found materials. This one brings forward the very idea of making something from trash...knitting with strips of plastic padding. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Also shown off at the gallery at the facility is David King's orbs, something we've highlighted before. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Some artists have gotten pretty detailed with their artwork, including making giant bugs that glow! Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Not all the art that is created here stays inside. Another secret to the dump is their community garden that holds many sculptures, such as this mosaic arch. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Much of the art holds messages about what we're doing to the earth. This sculpture made from plastic bottles is entitled "Earth Tear" - a name that speaks for itself. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Some of the sculptures are just awesome to look at. Whimsical art made from unlikely materials pop out from every corner. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The facility also likes to use the garden to educate. This container garden intends to remind people how everything on the surface of the earth is connected to everything below it, and the health of the planet depends upon more than what we can see. The garden also acts as a buffer between the surrounding community and the facility. When standing in the garden, you barely know tons upon tons of waste is being processed just a few dozen yards away. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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In fact, community approval is important to the facility. When this garden was created, it was dedicated to the community and children were invited to make these mosaic stones that now have a home in their playground. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The facility also does a lot to educate the community on reducing and recycling. The collection trucks all have this type of artwork on the sides so city residents remember to waste less. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Besides using the trucks as moving billboards, the facility has several educational displays in its gallery and meeting area. For instance, this display shows how much oil it take for various brands of bottled water to get to consumers. It's pretty frightening how much oil people are drinking on a daily basis. Evian is the biggest loser in this line-up. Find out how to kick the plastic bottle habit. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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Next to the bottled water display is a larger display showing various types of waste. Each type lists questions for consumers to ponder when they think about throwing something away - the bigger impact is always a priority in the facility's education efforts. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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The tour guide noted that the facility is built on the last piece of solid ground before the bay...all that land between this facility and the bay is old land fill. That's why liquifaction is such an issue in this earthquake-prone area. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

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At the end of the day, it is ultimately about using what materials we already have over and over again, rather than mining out more of the earth and filling it back up with junk. The San Francisco Dump is doing its best, and constantly improving, to make sure as little as possible goes to landfills, and it's setting a great example for other cities. There's still work to do, but we're finally starting to get there. Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch